“almost all periods of great violence… have caught the Jews by surprise and found them unprepared… there was no thought of attacks and major violence—at least not in their country, their house.”
Alex Bein, The Jewish Question
I have reconidered my reluctance to put my "final chapter" on the blog. In fact I have also reconsidered continuing blogging as my new project also unfolds. That projected companion volume to this two-year journey closing in the next three weeks is tentatively titled, The Jewish Problem, from Christian Anti-Judaism to Secular Antisemitism. It will continue the discussion introduced over the past two years, but in greater detail. I wish to apologize in advance to my Christian readers as this will, for some, reopen issues and wounds already discussed regarding scriptural and theological anti-Judaism. But it is precisely these foundational texts that resulted in what today is the Jewish Problem and its eternal seach for solution. Only with secularism, and modern technology and bureaucracy did a "solution" present itself, a "final solution."
I look forward to our continuing dialogue!
In relating “the greatest story ever told” the gospels depict only what are considered Jesus’ final two years of life. While the four gospels do not always agree regarding details of the narrative, events leading up to the crucifixion agree on one point: “the Jews” were responsible for Jesus’ death. All four also agree that the trial was before a Roman governor for a capital crime, typically for rebels against Roman authority. The gospel representation of “the trial” somehow initiated by the “Sanhedrin” charged with “blasphemy” is implausible as “history,” but not as allegory. That Paul’s earliest epistles were written two decades after the assumed death of Jesus makes any reference to Christ Jesus already “legendary.” That the earliest gospel in the canon was not transcribed before +/- 70 CE suggests they describe a “Jesus” facing challenges emerging messianic sect communities experienced or are imagined at a much later time than Jesus’ mission. In effect Christian scripture comprising Paul’s epistles and the four gospels represents an anti-Jewish polemic whose impact would, two thousand years later, result in the nearly successful extermination of those described Matthew 27:25 branded future generations Christ-killers for eternity.
II. The Jewish Problem: Origins
As Episcopal minister William Nicholls describes,
“The very presence of the Jewish people in the world... puts a great question against Christian belief… cause[s] profound and gnawing anxiety.”
From its earliest beginnings Christianity described itself “inheritor” of God’s Covenant, the “New Israel.” Augustine, possibly most “moderate” of Church Fathers reasoned, based on scriptural representation of “the Jews” as Christ-killers, that the murder of Jesus the reason for God having transferred his favor from Jew to gentile. This reasoning continues today. The same 1965 Vatican Council II which produced Nostre Aetate “absolving” present-day Jews of guilt for the death of Jesus also made sure to reaffirm “the Church "is the new people of God.” And thirty-five years later, in its closing summary of the Vatican’s 2010 Special Synod of Bishops for the Middle-East,
“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ... In the kingdom of God… there is no longer a chosen people.”
What then constitutes Christianity’s Jewish Problem? Reduced to its basic description the Problem is that Jews persist in surviving. To the early Church Jewish survival represented an inexplicable challenge to Christian claims successor, as replacing Judaism in God’s favor. Had it not been for Augustine’s explanation providing for at least some Jews surviving alongside Christians it is likely Jews and Judaism would not have survived the fourth century, when Catholic Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.
i. Christian Love, Christian Hate
If surviving Jews and Judaism represent a threat to Christian claims, Christian anti-Judaism represents lethal danger to Jews. But how did this come about? Rosemary Ruether, the renowned Catholic theologian, clearly describes the Jewish Problem as “the left hand of Christology,” the “right hand” being Jesus’ gospel message of “love” (Ruether, Faith and Fratricide). From its beginnings Christianity described itself the “new” Israel having “replaced” the “old”, Judaism. Yet Jews, described as rejected by God as deicides inexplicably were allowed by God to survive and practice their “replaced” religion. It is the continuing existence of Jews and Judaism that challenges Christian claims to having “replaced” Judaism, that threatens the very legitimacy of Christian claims. Jewish existence is the Jewish Problem. It is Jews alive alongside Christians that represents that continuing existential threat Dr. Nicholls described as the source of Christianity’s “profound and gnawing anxiety.”
In “Matthew,” as in the other three gospels, the Roman governor before whom Jesus stands trial is depicted as “clueless,” as sympathetic with the accused rebel against Rome. But the “Matthew” gospel takes matters a step further. Not only does Pilate “find no fault” in Jesus, but goes beyond the other three by portraying the Jewish mob demanding Jesus’ death condemn all Jews and forever guilty as Christ-killers: “His blood is on us and on our children!“ The path to the Holocaust begins with Christian scripture, and the “Matthew” gospel in particular.
If “Matthew” painted all Jews forever as deicide justifying punishment, “John," written a half-century later, added its own twist by placing in Jesus mouth, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father''s desires.”
With the Late Middle Ages, a period of dramatic social change and natural disasters including the Black Plague, life and faith were under constant threat beyond human control. A malevolent and invisible presence was assumed at work. And if Satan was never quite visible, his “children” lived nearby and they were always available as outlet for Christian anxiety. It was from the period of the Middle Ages that many antisemitic stereotypes common to Western society today owe their origin.
With the erosion of ecclesial governance in recent centuries the Jewish Problem might have been expected to diminish, even vanish. Instead secularism’s legal “emancipation” of the Jewish people inspired the emergence of antisemitic political parties opposed not just to legal equality, but to the very presence of Jews in the new nation-states. How explain that antisemitism survived the end of Christian religious dominance?
III. The Jewish Problem in the Modern Era
German caricature from 1929 [three years before Germany voted in the Nazi Party] depicting Jewish greed. (Wikipedia)
Forty years later and just twenty years since Auschwitz General George Scratchley Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a speech before officer cadets in 1970; in an interview to a French newspaper reporter in 1972:
“They own, you know, the banks in this country, the newspapers. Just look at where the Jewish money is.”
That anti-Judaism almost transparently made the leap from Christianity-as-religion to Christendom-as-secular (Europe and its post-colonial states) is, for some readers, problematic. Western society emergent from feudalism was less a dramatic revolution than a gradual evolution. And as with all evolutionary processes the “present” carries within it “past” experience. Judeophobia had been part of Christendom’s source documents and history for more than seventeen centuries by the time of Europe’s “emancipation” of the Jews. The image of “the Jew,” both religious (Christ-killer) and social (usurer) was simply part of modernity’s cultural inheritance. As Ruether describes anti-Judaism as the “left hand of Christology” so might we describe antisemitism the “left hand of Western secularism.”
How does Judeophobia pass from generation to generation? Most obviously transmission is directly by contact with the source documents, Christian scriptural references to “the Jews” as “murderers of Jesus.” Since eighty percent of residents of the United States are Christian according to the 2011 census it is safe to assume that most have had at least some contact with scriptural anti-Judaism. Antisemitism as prejudice represents common beliefs fed by historical stereotypes by which Jews represent a threat justifying exclusion. Recall that 1939 Roper poll of American Christians which found that,
“Fifty-three percent believed that ‘Jews are different and should be restricted’ and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.”
That survey, taken soon after Krystallnacht is significant in representing both “moderate” and “extremist” antisemitism as fairly constant over intervening years to 2011! Whether by “restricted” (moderate) was meant “concentration camps.” How restrict Jews (the “moderate” position)? The model provided by Germany, and soon also by America regarding Japanese-Americans was concentrations camps. As to the “extremist” demand for “deportation,” what destination might they have had in mind?
In 2012 in a speech before the House of Representatives Republican Don Manzullo attacked fellow Virginian and Jewish House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “Mr. Cantor, an observant Jew, would not be "saved." Cantor avoided a direct response but, in an April, 2012 interview, referred instead to "the darker side" of America that has “not always gotten it right in terms of racial matters, religious matters, whatever.” In fact Manzullo’s views regarding Jews and salvation is fairly common among many American who proudly refer to the United States a “Christian country.”
In 2007 Jerry Falwell, regarded a leading American Evangelical leader stated that, "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
But anti-Jewish prejudice is not limited to religious expression. It is also present as secular expression. There are abundant examples of antisemitic epithets appearing in the media by American politicians and culture icons. “FDR,” pressed by Henry Morgenthau to agree to even a token bombing of Auschwitz reminded his Jewish Treasury secretary, “You know, this is a Protestant country,” that the Jews are here “under sufferance.” And choice epithets by Richard Nixon on his White House tapes were a recent media scandal.
In July, 2013 the chairwoman of the board of a small Florida town, Cheryl Sanders, announced at a board meeting that they were "not to be up here jewing over somebody''s pay.” “jewing” refers to the medieval stereotype of Jews as usurers. Unfortunately for the chairwoman her words were picked up by the media. Surprised and offended by the national attention Sanders insisted, “I am not anti-Semitic and there was no malice toward anyone." She described “jewing” as commonly used in everyday speech and that nobody should take her use of it as antisemitism.
One of her defenders was the Jewish editor of the local paper, David Adlerstein:
"I have heard the expression on more than one occasion around these parts in my dozen years at the paper… it doesn''t offend me, unless it''s used to describe someone who cheats you. But haggling and dickering? To me, it''s a proud trait of my tribe, and it''s a solid cut above cold-hearted stiffing someone with a pious grin. But that''s me." (emphasis added)
Adlerstein describes his father as having “worked his entire life for the Anti-Defamation League." He describes himself a "proud Jew" with a Jewish education, having attended Brandeis University. In earlier chapters I described two similar situations in which local lawmakers used the term “jewing.“ One, the leader of Texas lawmakers apologized by explaining the term arose “spontaneously,” a childhood remnant from everyday use by himself and boyhood friends.
Such “expressions” in pop-culture are examples of how deeply embedded antisemitism is in the psyche of Western society. So “common and accepted” that even some Jews are comfortable in its presence, accept it as innocent and normal part of American life.